59 / Genealogy

Genealogy combines fantasies of grandeur with the thrill of the chase. Using the internet as a sort of metal detector you never know who you might turn up as a relative. 

'Mowbray' is unusual as a first name and rare enough as a family name in Ireland, or England for that matter.  In my younger days this bothered me enough to introduce myself by the easy nickname ‘Mo’, and this has stuck. The name is a family heirloom. It belonged to my paternal grandfather. He worked in the coal mines and played the violin.

I was curious to know who else had been given the name and did a little digging into my ancestry.  Mowbray’ is an English name of northern French (Norman) origin. It’s derived from a village, Montbrai, which derives from the not very flattering Old French, ‘mud hill’. (Old French, ‘mont’ i.e. hill and Gaulish ‘brai’ i.e. mud or slime.)

After these humble beginnings things take a better turn. In 1066 (the one date that every school child knows) Duke William of Normandy attacked and defeated the English forces at the Battle of Hastings. Geoffrey de Montbray – now Bishop of Coutances – accompanied William the Conqueror. He was rewarded for his loyal assistance with large estates notably in the north east of England. The Anglo-Norman baronial House of Mowbray dates from this time.

The name Mowbray therefore had an auspicious start in the north east of England. But what possessed my ancestors to embrace it as a first name remains a mystery. To discover more I once again resorted to the metal detector. I found gold.

It seems I have a distant connection with the first President of the United States, John Hanson. Well, maybe George Washington was the first but he’s no relative of mine. John Hanson properly was first president of the United States in Congress Assembled. It was a largely ceremonial position. There was no executive function. John Hanson found it tedious and couldn’t wait to resign at the end of his one year’s tenure. According to my admittedly limited search his paternal grandfather hailed from the Mowbrays of the north east of England...

© Ann Brady, The Giant's Ring, Belfast


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